After spending ten years in Hollywood both writing scripts and being a story analyst, I moved from Hollywood to the Middle East. I have been here for four years, two wars and an intifada. It has been quite an illuminating transition to say the least, and it has, among other things, allowed me to see Hollywood and storytelling itself, from a completely different angle. It has shown me the true impact of film.
One of the first things I noticed was the large number of people in this region who have learned English from watching American movies. This amazes me because I watch movies from this region and even with subtitles, I am not able to pick up any more Arabic or Hebrew than I had before. This speaks not to my language learning ability level but to the sheer volume of American film - and influence - in this part of the world.
You probably already figured that American movies give other nationals some strong impressions of what America is like and you are correct. Our movies do make an impression. Most people I have met in the Middle East think that America is a very violent place, which should of course strike you as ironic, since you probably think of the Middle East as a very violent place. But the movies we make have a huge influence in forming ideas about what America is like and what Americans think is important. Naturally. I often find myself saying no, no, that is a particular point of view or a particular slice of life, or, no, no, that is an ideal of American life, or a dramatization of conflict. Take this lesson the opposite way when you see foreign films. You are seeing a point of view and not necessarily a reflection of reality.
Nonetheless movies - stories - make very powerful impressions. What has become a growing concern for me is the cross-over of entertainment into all forms of communication. There is no doubt in my mind that Jon Stewart's Daily Show was a great hybrid of comedy and news. The vehicle of entertainment broke down barriers and of course there is the larger social commentary of news as satire, in this, our increasingly polarised world. But there are other concerns as well, as comedy becomes commentary, advertisements become mini-movies, performance becomes political, movies embrace product placement, political battles become info-tainment and citizens become journalists.
Living in the Middle East, I see the very dark side of these blurred lines. Where I live, young people are routinely exposed to - there is no nice word for it - propaganda in media. While Americans watched Beyonce's controversial (to some) performance at the Super Bowl, young Palestinians saw this. The distance between a young person living in despair and disinformation and radicalism is a very short one.
That humans create stories to make sense of the world is indisputable. There is even new evidence about the process in which our brains create stories - dreams - to help us integrate information. Story telling then, is an inbuilt human capacity that serves many purposes. Not all of those purposes are good. Who are we making sense of the world for and why?
Americans often get accused of being unconcerned with what happens outside of America. I don't think Americans don't care, I think that we live in a very large America-Land that makes focus on other places possible to ignore. For Europeans, Donald Trump sends chills because they have lived the outcome of fascism and despotism. For Americans, the threat is real but not as visceral.
But increasingly, as technology and film brings us together all over the world, with more media more of the time available to more audiences, global memes are created. And we really must pay attention to this impact no matter where we live because, trust me on this - sooner or later, everything comes home to roost.
The impact of media most certainly has historical precedents. Leni Riefenstahl being a particularly chilling reminder, but over and over, movies - whether they are feature or documentary - shape attitudes and change minds. Which leads to an interesting chicken-and-egg question that as a screenwriter trying to come up with new ideas, you are familiar with. Should you write something that audiences have already demonstrated a liking for? Or should you say something entirely unique and without precedent? If the construct of business in mainstream Hollywood is any answer, "the same but different" seems to be the resounding reply.
In From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses, a fascinating overview is presented of the way in which film reflected and created the ethos of Weimar Germany that led to the rise of Hitler. In essence, you could take any historical era from any country and look at the films from that time and find connections between what was going on during that era and how screenwriters and filmmakers were then communicating and in some cases predicting - and creating - outcomes. The relationship between all forms of media - feature films and news being at this stage the most ubiquitous and powerful - and the shaping of beliefs and attitudes has always been promising - and problematic.
Raising your awareness of the role media plays in the world is a powerful way to become a more savvy writer, as you realise that screenwriting is not just about you or your film - you are also playing an important role in the public conversation about art, expression, opinion and influence. Contextualizing film and society gives you a powerful view into the stories not just that you want to tell, but that are being told. Whether you know it or not, you have the opportunity, through your script, manuscript, blog or podcast, to be one voice of many that eons from now will have described our course as humans.
From Hollywood to the Middle East and now from writing (well, I'll always write) to a media literacy advocate, I recently founded MEMLI (the Middle East Media Literacy Initiative) to make media literacy widely available to youth in this region. I have always held as a value the idea that you should think globally but act locally.
I invite you to think on a much larger scale about the role of media and story in society and not only what you can do to express yourself and be a part of our human story, but to also develop an awareness of media impact outside of your personal goals and lives. You are already aware of the power of story. This is made exponential in the internet age. This is very important food for thought.
MEMLI launches in two months in the West Bank/Palestine, where we will be teaching Palestinian youth how to be more savvy consumers and creators of media. Alongside media literacy, we will be teaching critical thinking and emotional intelligence skills. Be a part of media for GOOD. Support media literacy. Additionally, all proceeds from story consults with me go directly to MEMLI. Get feedback AND support media literacy - talk about win-win!
- More articles by Julie Gray
- Get Real: Movie Ideas - Why Didn't I Think of That? Part 1
- Chris Fenton on the Speck Market, Foreign Sales and When to Celebrate in Hollywood
Get more advice from Julie Gray in her book
Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter's Atlas